The American Ill of Mass Incarceration

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Mass incarceration is a significant issue in society today. This unresolved problem has persisted since the end of the Civil War. We continually lock away minorities in a system created against them. There are several theories explaining why criminal activity is so pervasive and how one’s upbringing significantly impacts their future. We urgently need a change.

African American oppression has a history spanning hundreds of years, sometimes perpetuated by our own people. The American slavery era is among the most well-known cases.

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Thousands of lives were transported and sold like animals. They were exploited, thrown overboard, or forced to work in unfamiliar territories. Despite their struggle, they had some advocates who lent their voices when society chose to disregard theirs.

President Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860, aimed to put an end to the rift between the slave and free states as westward expansion gained momentum. When the Civil War erupted after the South seceded from the Union, President Lincoln, after about three years of fighting, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It declared all slaves in the rebellious states as free. However, many slaves weren’t actually freed until years later when the war officially ended.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”, were enacted to ensure African Americans received their citizens’ rights. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but individuals could still be forced to work if incarcerated. The 14th Amendment defined citizenship, asserting citizens’ equal protection under the law, including their right to due process. The 15th Amendment granted the right to vote irrespective of race or previous condition of servitude.

Despite these Federal Laws, African Americans’ human rights were often overlooked, especially in the Southern states. Whites in the South, realising their economy, politics and society were in shambles, sought ways to perpetuate African Americans’ inferiority. Black Codes were instituted, which denied blacks the civil rights they had gained from the Civil War Amendments. Shortly after, “Pig Laws” were implemented to further victimise African Americans under conditions specifically targeted at them. For instance, stealing a farm animal worth about $1 or not having employment could result in incarceration. Minorities in Southern society, lacking the means to acquire food legally, would often resort to theft. Lack of jobs often led them to sharecropping, which largely resulted in an unending cycle of debt.

While in prison, inmates were subjected to the Convict Leasing system, which meant being “leased” to planters or industrialists who were then responsible for their food and housing. Regarded as cheap and easily replaceable by their employers, the rights of these “convicts” were often neglected. At times, records of convicts’ sentences were lost, leading employers to assume their service period was longer. Additionally, these convicts often lacked proper food, clothing, and shelter. Due to the harsh punishments and prevalence of diseases, many died within the convict leasing system.

There was also the peonage system, where a wealthy businessman would pay off the fines for the crime and additional court fees. Another way was that a businessman could vouch on their behalf and use bonds that would pay for the crime. The convict would then sign a contract to work for the businessman without pay until the bond was paid off. Many African Americans hardly knew how to read, which meant that they weren’t exactly sure what they were signing off on. Another cheap alternative to building prisons was through chain gangs. This forced convicts to work while chained together. Although it was cost-effective, it exposed prisoners to dangerous infections and one slip or fall could affect the whole group.

Criminal Behavior Theories

Over time, people have developed theories to explain why criminals get incarcerated at alarming rates. Many of these theories suggest that the environment in which a person grows up can have an influence on their decision to become involved in criminal activity. Some notable theories include the Social Learning Theory, and the Social Disorganization Theory. Both of these theories focus on minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The Social Learning Theory posits that people learn behaviors by observing others. For instance, if a child grows up witnessing the people around them commit crimes and go to jail, they are more likely to engage in crimes themselves. People in disadvantaged neighborhoods, or “hoods”, are more inclined to steal because they lack necessary resources. This plays into mass incarceration because people in these neighborhoods are often suspected of being criminals due to circumstances beyond their control.

The Social Disorganization Theory argues that a person’s location is more significant than the attributes they possess. Instead of learning from the people around them, this theory places greater emphasis on where a person grows up. Socio-economically deprived neighborhoods often become inundated with immigrants, minorities, and the impoverished until they can afford to leave. The disorganization of these neighborhoods tends to lead to more crime, which as per the Social Learning Theory, can further propagate in the community.

These theories complement each other in explaining the reasons for mass incarceration today. An individual raised in a neighborhood with scarce resources may resort to criminal activity. When a person engages in such activity, it can influence those around them. In some cases, it’s not necessarily the people around you that impact your life; sometimes, the absence of certain influential people can also have significant effects.


Mass Incarceration has caused many problems in society. As of 2013, there were approximately 2.7 million American children with at least one parent incarcerated. Many of these children end up involved in criminal activity themselves due to their exposure to such environments. That number doubled to about 5 million children who have experienced at least one incarcerated parent at one point in their life as of January 2018. When listening to Bobby, a previously incarcerated individual, he told us that the environment he grew up in and the people he associated with greatly influenced his decisions.

He also explained that the absence of a father figure in his life led him to seek acceptance from others, which resulted in his involvement in questionable activities. The actions of his past may negatively impact his children when they apply for college in the future. He strongly believes that people need to educate themselves about the justice system and understand that life after incarceration is significantly challenging.

Upon release from prison, the individual is tasked with finding a job and housing. Many employers discard the application upon seeing a felony conviction. Even when they secure a job, they have to contend with the watchful eyes of employers and co-workers. Additionally, family and friends often fall short of the expected support. Bobby faced considerable judgment and stereotyping from other African Americans as well as whites.

Today’s judicial system appears to be stacked against minorities in America. Following the Civil War, whites sought ways to retain African American labor to sustain the economy. If the prison system centered more on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures, ex-convicts would have a better chance in life. Denying people the right to vote based on past mistakes is inexcusable.

Many individuals enter the prison system without a clear understanding of its inner workings, thus facing an unfair disadvantage against a judicial system founded on biased principles. Bobby strongly advised us to educate ourselves beforehand to avoid being caught unawares. As such, there should be more programs that stress the importance of understanding the system.

In conclusion, if people are not provided with the necessary resources to educate themselves, history will inevitably repeat itself. If more effort were put into educating youths in disadvantaged neighborhoods, they could then disseminate this knowledge to others. Redirecting one life onto the right path can initiate a domino effect, leading to fewer African Americans getting incarcerated due to ignorance. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon us to create the changes we wish to see.

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The American Ill of Mass Incarceration. (2019, Sep 30). Retrieved from